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Biden's 2035 carbon-free power goal requires 'supercharged innovation decade'

The nation will need a surge in technology innovation this decade to completely decarbonize the U.S. power sector by 2035 as former Vice President Joe Biden has proposed, according to several industry experts.

In July, Biden, the Democratic Party's presidential nominee, released a four-year, $2 trillion climate plan, the most ambitious policy ever proposed by a candidate for president, focused on infrastructure and clean energy investments to rebuild the economy. The plan calls for a 100% emission reduction from the electricity sector in the next 15 years and economywide net-zero emissions by 2050.

However, several industry observers during a Sept. 9 panel during an Edison Electric Institute virtual summit suggested reaching those targets could prove challenging given the intermittency of renewable energy sources and the energy sector's reliance on natural gas-fueled generation.

"Boy, if there's any reality to that [plan] we better have started the [research and development] and commercialization yesterday," Gerard Anderson, executive chairman of DTE Energy, said. DTE has pledged to cut carbon emissions 80% by 2040.

Former U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, who served during the Obama administration, said the 2035 goal would be challenging to meet, "but I'm not going to write it off." However, he acknowledged that reaching the goal is probable "only if this decade is the supercharged innovation decade."

"We have to get all of those new technologies ready to start scaling by 2030 to have a shot at the 2035 electricity goal, let alone the more aggressive energy economy goal," Moniz said. "It's a big lift, but it's got to be now that we push frankly on the accelerator like hell to innovate this decade."

Significant investment into research and development is critical throughout the 2020s, according to Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund. The electric sector should also view decarbonization as an opportunity, he said, since reducing emissions from transportation and residential heating and cooling could result in electrifying those sectors, which would mean more money for utilities.

Rather than solely focusing on the technology needed to decarbonize the power sector, the government will also need to set standards that drive the market to innovate, Krupp said.

"Instead of arguing about which technologies are going to work, we should all be focused on having a durable, mandatory, legal limit on how much greenhouse gases can be put into the air from the entire economy," Krupp said. "That will give industry the stability it needs to make investments and figure out how to get there in the cheapest way."

Former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, who served during the Obama administration and now leads the Natural Resources Defense Council, said Biden's 2035 target was both realistic and imperative to meet. She, therefore, implored utility executives to think bigger and invest in the grid and battery storage.

"It's not about one utility company making it work," McCarthy said. "It's about the United States of America protecting our kids and their future. We have to shift to renewable energy and we have to have the infrastructure investments to get it there."